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Lawmaker Presses for Free Speech in Foul-Mouth Student's Blog Case

A Connecticut high school punished Avery Doninger, then 16, for words she wrote from home on a private blog in 2007. State lawmakers are now considering legislation to protect electronic speech by students. (Photo: Lauren Doninger)

Connecticut may become the first state to protect the "right" of children to rip into their teachers -- anytime, anywhere.

A state lawmaker is proposing legislation that would bar schools from punishing students for their electronic insults, even if they write them on class computers during school hours.

State Sen. Gary D. LeBeau says he proposed his bill in the wake of punishments meted out to Avery Doninger, a 16-year-old high school girl who was disciplined in 2007 for calling school administrators "douche bags" in a blog she wrote from home.

"What's at stake is the loss of free speech," said LeBeau, who believes the school system was reaching into Doninger's home to punish her. "I want to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

Click here to see the bill.

Doninger's digital disdain became a national cause after school authorities barred her from running for office at Lewis B. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., where she had been class secretary as a junior. Her family believes the punishment was a violation of Doninger's First Amendment rights and that the school "showed a phenomenal disregard for basic liberties," her mother, Lauren Doninger, told FOXNews.com. 

Before school administrators found and disseminated the salty blog post, almost no one had even seen it, she said.

"It didn't get on campus," she said, noting that only three people read her daughter's blog. "It was not a threat -- it did not disrupt the school. It was exactly the type of speech that is meant to be protected by the First Amendment."

The Doningers sued the school, but courts repeatedly sided against them. So now -- as 18-year-old Avery Doninger continues to file appeals -- LeBeau says it's time for lawmakers to act.

LeBeau said the purpose of his bill is to protect all forms of speech -- even words that are meant to be offensive. "Frankly, I think the speech that has to be protected is offensive speech. No one cares about speech that's not offensive," he told FOXNews.com.

But a lawyer for the National School Boards Association said the bill is a "remarkable" document that steps well beyond what courts have been willing to allow in classrooms, and that it could have unintended consequences harmful to students themselves.

"Generally speaking, these are the kinds of decisions that we would say are best left in the hands of school boards," said Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the NSBA. Legislatures are often years behind changes in technology, Hutton said, leaving their laws "stuck in time," whereas schools can react much more rapidly.

Stopping some forms of speech "is in the students' own interest as well," said Hutton, who noted that colleges and employers have recourse to Internet records and can judge students by the electronic trail they've left behind.

But LeBeau, who was a teacher for more than 35 years, said schools are using changes in technology as an excuse to interfere with students' private conversations.

"To think that this whole new way of speaking to each other on the Internet is different because it's done at the click of a button -- I'm sorry, it's not. It still should be protected speech," he said.

A U.S. District Court judge disagreed, ruling in January that the Internet poses a unique challenge, as e-mails and blog posts can be disseminated and read instantly by students, teachers and administrators.

"Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse," wrote Judge Mark Kravitz, defending school officials who could not reasonably be expected "to predict where the line between on- and off-campus speech will be drawn in this new digital era."

LeBeau hopes to establish that line with his bill. "What I'm trying to do is create a bright line between the right of free speech outside of the school and [at the boundaries of] the schoolhouse doors," he said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that a school principal can restrict the speech of a student who isn't even on school grounds. But the landmark decision in Morse v. Frederick -- the so-called "Bong Hits for Jesus" case -- involved a student hanging an off-color banner across the street from his school during a school event, and didn't involve electronic communication.

The Court also ruled in 1969 that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," but some legal advocates think schools are now reaching all the way to students' doorsteps.

"It was censorship of a student's opinion outside of school, after hours and on a private computer," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If someone cannot get onto the Internet and be able to express themselves freely ... then what speech among students is protected?"

Lauren Doninger said she wished her daughter "had used more sophisticated language," but said it was up to her, not the school board, to mete out the punishment. "It's for me to discipline her at home, not for the school."

The Doningers have vowed to press their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The superintendent of schools for District 10, where Mills High School is located, declined to comment because of ongoing litigation and appeals. 

LeBeau stressed to FOXNews.com that his bill wouldn't allow students to use disruptive and offensive language on school property, but his bill says just the opposite.

The proposal specifically allows students to communicate freely "with school equipment," wording the lawyer for the school boards found troubling. "That would be very unusual," Hutton said.

A legislative aide to LeBeau told FOXNews.com that the bill -- which is only one sentence long -- was a draft, and the final version would be "more comprehensive than this."